The Story of the OCBD Shirt

Words by Victor Besnard

From a polo match in England in the 19th century to the wardrobe of Ivy League students in the 50s; A little history of the oxford cloth button down shirt.

It has been said that the oxford cloth button down shirt (or the O.C.B.D., as connoisseurs like to call it) is the most essential garment in a man’s wardrobe. Its understated elegance has been elevating the way men dress for over a century. Embraced by Ivy League students in the 1950s as their uniform and adored by style icons such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Gianni Agnelli; the button-down shirt is without a doubt an iconic piece of menswear.

The history of the OCBD

The story goes that an American named John E Brooks (of Brooks Brothers) attended a polo match during one of his visits to England. While watching the match, he noticed something peculiar about the polo players outfits. Their collars were fastened to their shirts with buttons, apparently to avoid distraction from the collar points flapping around during the match.

A team of polo players

Intrigued with his discovery John E Brooks brought one of the polo players’ shirts back to America to have it replicated. It wasn’t much later when in 1896 the first “polo collar” shirt was introduced to the American market.

From Ivy League to Hollywood

Fast forward a couple decades to the 1950s, when the Ivy League students adopted the OCBD and made it part of their uniform. The college campuses were full of students wearing tweed jackets, oxford cloth button-down shirts, regimental ties, flannel trousers and penny loafers.

This casual but decadent style worn by the east coast elite did not remain unnoticed by the west coast. Famous actors such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Robert Redford embraced this new way of dressing on and off screen and elevated it to the height of cool. It became the style of the new American generation and the popularity of the button-shirt really took off.

Robert Redford
Steve McQueen
Gianni Agnelli
Robert Redford Steve McQueen Gianni Agnelli

John F. Kennedy continued wearing the shirt in the oval office long after finishing his studies at Harvard. Miles Davis sported a green OCBD on the cover of his album Milestones. And the admiration of the shirt also stretched overseas. Alain Delon wore the shirt in 1960 as his portrayal of Tom Ripley in Purple Noon. And it was the favourite shirt of head of Italian car giant Fiat Gianni Agnelli, who is widely regarded as one of the best dressed men of the 20th century.

The collar roll

There is something fascinating about the roll of a (proper) button-down collar. This elegant arch is probably the most sought-after detail by menswear enthusiasts. Over the years, trends and shirt making techniques changed and this crucial little detail became harder to find (almost disappeared).

Alain Delon
William Holden
Alain Delon William Holden

So what makes the collar roll? It’s a combination of several things. First, the length of the collar points is crucial since it should be long enough to form an arch. Around 3½ inch (or 9cm) is enough to achieve a proper roll. Secondly, the collar buttons should be positioned slightly higher than usual, so that the long collar points are forced to form an arch. Finally, the collar shouldn’t be too stiff, so the interlining should be soft. As a matter of fact, the first oxford cloth button down shirts had no interlining at all.

The oxford cloth

The history of the oxford cloth can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century in Scotland. Scotland was an important player in the textile industry and local mills were experimenting with new types of weaves. One mill launched four types of cloths named after prestigious universities; Yale, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford. The latter became one of the most popular fabrics for casual shirts.

The revolutionising aspect of the oxford cloth was its specific basket-weave pattern. You may have read about weaves in our introduction to shirt fabric, but it is essentially the way in which the threads of cotton (called warp and weft) are put together to make a fabric. Oxford cloth is made up of multiple weft threads crossing over an equal number of warp threads. The threads are usually of a single colour crossed with a white to give oxford its unique, checkerboard appearance.

The details

The style of a shirt is determined by more than just the collar and the cloth.

Many characteristics such as cuffs, front and back shape its appearance. As a casual shirt, the OCBD has single cuffs, often a one button barrel or mitered cuff. The traditional version has a placket front and a box pleat in the middle of the back for extra movement. And finally, a chest pocket is an integral part of the OCBD shirt. It fits the casual nature of the shirt perfectly and comes in handy during the summer for sunglasses.

Paul Newman
Miles Davis
Paul Newman Miles Davis

Oxford cloth comes in many colours but if you’re starting to build your shirt wardrobe, we recommend starting with white, light blue and a university stripe. These are solid options to wear on a pair of jeans but also work well with tailoring.